NEIL Lennon has become embroiled in a sharp exchange of words with Juventus counterpart Antonio Conte ahead of tonight’s Champions League last 16, second-leg showdown in Turin.
The Celtic manager’s resentment over the tactics used by the Italian champions in Glasgow three weeks ago shows no sign of dissipating.
The tie may effectively be over following Juventus’ 3-0 first leg victory but there promises to be no shortage of tension, especially in the technical areas, when the teams lock horns once more.
Lennon is still angry over the man-handling of his players by Juventus defenders at set pieces which went largely unpunished by Spanish referee Alberto Mallenco at Celtic Park.
Conte re-ignited the row yesterday, chiding Lennon about his criticism of match officials and insisting that Celtic striker Gary Hooper was in fact the guilty party in the first leg by attempting to block off Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon.
That brought an immediate and withering response from Lennon, who accused Conte of “talking rubbish” and repeated his condemnation of the Juventus tactics.
Speaking to Italian journalists shortly before Lennon held his own media conference in Turin, Conte contested the Celtic manager’s interpretation of the rules.
“If I’m going to analyse the first game well, I can’t just look at our game, but also theirs,” said Conte. “I say that every time it starts, or there is a corner to Celtic, there is always punishment in favour of the defending team because there is a player who systematically blocks our goalkeeper in the six-yard box. In this case of the first leg, it was Hooper.
“Regulation says that in the six-yard box, a goalkeeper must not be touched and, if he is, it is systematically a foul.
“So I say every time there is a player that goes in there, then all angles systematically show there was a foul in favour of Juventus.
“He (Lennon) talks about the rules, so then I’ll bring a dossier about the Celtic player blocking our goalkeeper. I repeat, we tried to gloss over these things at the time. Maybe I’m being European and Lennon is being Italian. If he complains about referees, perhaps he can coach in Italy, because here we all complain. Let us just think of the players. I always say that it is about the players and not the officials.”
Unsurprisingly, Lennon was quick to challenge Conte’s comments as he defended the actions of Hooper who was booked in the first leg along with the main perpetrator of Juventus’ tactics, Stephan Lichsteiner.
“He (Conte) is talking rubbish,” said Lennon. “Hooper is allowed to stand in front of Buffon. Any player can stand anywhere he likes in the box.
“He’s not affecting the goalkeeper, he’s not touching the goalkeeper and he’s not preventing him from getting the ball. If he prevents him from getting the ball then, yes, it’s a free kick. But before the ball is kicked he’s not doing anything and he is entitled to stand where he likes. So he [Conte] is talking nonsense.
“Gary wasn’t doing anything wrong. And what about Scott Brown? Simone Padoin came on and the first thing he did was put his arms around Scott’s waist. He got booked for it and then he did the same thing again straight away.
“At the first corner of the night, Gary ended up in the goal, in the back of the net. So how does that happen without him being wrestled in there?
“I’m not sure Gary did a lot wrong and if you look at the Padoin one, Scott did nothing wrong. He was actually trying to run away from him and he still got wrestled to the ground. That was after Padoin was booked. The cameras were fixed on it, so how the ref didn’t see it I don’t know.”
Lennon received no response from Uefa to his request for clarification on how the rules were applied in the first leg and has expressed the hope that tonight’s referee, Firat Aydinus from Turkey, adopts a different approach.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t hear from Uefa, but is it really a surprise?,” said Lennon. “I don’t know what Turkish refs are like, but hopefully he is stronger than the Spanish one. They are all the top refs in their countries, so you expect them to be competent.
“All I want is for him to do his job and I don’t think Mallenco did his job properly in the first leg. I don’t think I’ve seen it as blatant as that, ever.
“It was just so galling. I mean, we’ve done everything right. I watched Juventus against Napoli last Friday night, and their defender Giorgio Chiellini was all over the Napoli striker Edison Cavani.
“He had him almost in a head lock at one point, there was a bit of afters and then Chiellini pulled Cavani’s hair. Then when the ball comes back in, Cavani just smashed him with his forearm.
“He should have been sent-off but it was just a yellow card. The point is, it was still going on and Cavani lost his temper because of it. Our boys showed tremendous restraint when it happened to them and we weren’t really commended for that.”